Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Janáček's The Makropulos Case lucidly told and brilliantly sung at San Francisco Opera

From director Olivier Tambosi, San Francisco Opera's revival production of Leoš Janáček's penultimate opera, The Makropulos Case, creates a clever juxtaposition of lucidly unfolding drama set in a sunless and mainly monotone world. Appreciatively sung in Czech with English supertitles, in it, a stream of convincing characters brilliantly take their position in one of opera's outer-orbital stories.

Imagine given the opportunity to live through centuries of change in secret without growing old. It might be a highly desirable proposition. But in 1585 Elina Makropulos had no such choice when her alchemist father, Hieronymus Makropulos, was ordered to test a potion on her at the request of Emperor Rudolph II in order to extend his life.

Charles Workman , Nadja Michael and Dale Travis
More than 300 years later, after copious identities and forever an escapee, her contemporary incarnation, Emilia Marty, is facing the final curtain unless she can find the formula to extend her life another 300 years. As luck would have it, she hears of the generations-spanning case of Gregor vs. Prus over rights to a disputed estate she was once a part of that she insists a will exists for and a sealed envelope she is desperate to retrieve.

It sounds like the beginnings of a dark fairytale but what we get from Janáček is an exciting, potent and mature psycho-drama that nudges realism. Premiered in 1926, the story's eccentricity is masterfully played out in Janáček's highly expressive and musically conversant score and natural flowing libretto that clearly reflects the writing of Karel Čapek's play written a few years earlier. Tambosi commendably mines it for gesturally large effects together with the exact amount of lighter moments of relief that are inextricably bonded to the score.

A sturdy and colourful overture guides us through landscapes that could easily depict shifting historical moods to take the observer to the opening scene. In his San Francisco Opera debut, conductor Mikhail Tatarnikov gave the work multi-faceted life and extracted interest and clarity from all sections of the pit. Tatarnikov provided generous space for his singers and the draft for emotion that resulted in an inseparable and symbiotic relationship throughout.

Nadja Michael as Emilia Marty
But the work's success hinges on the performance of the woman at the centre of this affair who is rarely off stage. Slim, streamlined and seductive as she slinks about her domain, German soprano Nadja Michael is a scorching dynamo as the minx-like and spiked-blonde-haired Emilia Marty or E.M., the initials she uses for every one of her previous identities. Michael takes little time to establish her authority over men and her command of the stage. At her youthful 337 years of age, Emilia has mastered a few techniques, including operatic star quality as a singer, so mounting the attorney's desk or hurling insults is all part of the power she exerts.

But life has become numb for Emilia and the cold and uncaring self-interested woman eventually boils over with pitiable emotive force as she realises she has lost life's meaning. Michael encapsulates the steely coldness and later impassioned Emilia with remarkable force in a performance that makes its case against immortality. Michael showed not only unfaltering staying power, but her dark volcanic soprano intensified right through to Emilia's final melodramatic collapse.

Despite her dominance, Michael never shredded her strong surrounding cast. Handsome, tall and smooth-acting as Albert Gregor, Charles Workman easily falls into Emilia's grasp and complements this authoritative figure with passionately charged vocal muscularity, technical dexterity and sharp emotive turns.

Scene from Act III, The Makropulos Case 
Stephen Powell's broad and earthy baritone adds vocal weight to his middle-aged, stout and dignified Baron Jaroslav Prus. As the case lawyer Dr. Kolenatý, Dale Travis imprints a solid presence but with a similar earthy vocal quality and stage presence as Powell, the pair are presumably more indiscernible the further the audience is distant.

Joel Sorensen opens vocal proceedings strongly as the diligent but mildly dithering Vitek, Dr. Kolenatý's clerk, with his fine, piercing and distinctive ringing tenor. As his geeky daughter Kristina, second-year Adler Fellow, rich and fulsome soprano Julie Adams gives a charming performance as she swoons over her opera idol Emilia. Continuing a character list with few degrees of separation, Kristina's affable boyfriend Janek, the son of Prus, is sung with polish by tenor Brenton Ryan and Matthew O'Neill clearly looks and sings like he's been given a second shot at life after distracting proceedings as the aged and wiry Count Hauk-Sendorf.

Frank Philipp Schlössmann's generally black and white monotone set and costume designs and Duane Schuler's subdued lighting appropriately reflect the numbness of Emilia's life. It also effectively masks its 20th century setting well. A revolve presents the opera's three acts with real-time moving forward on a large clock. But the striking opening set, depicting Dr. Kolenatý's office in an exaggerated litter and height of books and papers, isn't repeated with the same flair in subsequent acts but there's no overall damage done.

The chance to see The Makropulos Case doesn't come often but San Francisco Opera have gladly revived it after just six years. Seeing it once for Nadja Michael's performance alone is worth it  but second time around you'll find there's so much more you'll discover.

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 29th October

Production Photos: Cory Weaver

Sunday, October 16, 2016

A fervently sung and simmering dark Macbeth at LA Opera

It's difficult to overlook how a living great, who has carved out a long and illustrious operatic career, impacts the experience of a performance but Plácido Domingo has that effect. This performance of director Darko Tresnjak's LA Opera production of Verdi's Macbeth, the composer's first setting of a Shakespearean drama and the company's first, was sold out for a very good reason.

"Kindness, respect and honour will not grace my old age. They will not utter sweet words over my tomb. A curse will be my only epitaph".

So sings Domingo as Macbeth in "Pietà, rispetto, amore", Act IV's final big aria, as he learns that the English-backed Scottish insurgents are advancing. It is the most compelling and deeply moving moment of Domingo's performance as he utters words of which are antithesis to his legendary operatic status.

As Athanaël in LA Opera's 2013 production of Thaïs, Domingo impressed but here the indefatigable septuagenerian transcends even that. Domingo is not only remarkable for his vocal richness and staying power, he's an exemplary actor who portrays the dramatic conviction and understanding of both his character and music.

Plácido Domingo as Macbeth and Ekaterina Semenchuk as Lady Macbeth
Amongst the assortment of vocal characteristics Domingo can muster, there's oil, oak and hints of onyx in his handsomely sung Macbeth who he depicts not with the cowardice that Lady Macbeth accuses him of, but a fragility and hopelessness see-sawing with determination. Aside from marginal thinning of the voice's upper range, the agile Domingo shows little sign of strain.

Alongside Domingo, soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk shares the stage with equal greatness. Together, Domingo and Semenchuk cement a truly convincing and broiling portrayal of a king and queen's desperate hold on power.

Vocally dark and solid with balsamic-like richness, Semenchuk conjures a brutally impressive brew of imperiousness, regality and vulnerability as Lady Macbeth. In a tender gesture of power-craving, she hugs the throne but also touchingly expresses great affection for her husband through subtle and affecting result. Semenchuk's power, control, range and register shifts all combine in an all-encompassing, compelling performance. Able to burst with ferocity and plunge into a firm coloratura, Semenchuk steers her character to the edge of madness in Act IV's "Una macchia è qui tuttora!" with a contrasting lightness of voice in a scene as she crisscrosses the stage that unmistakably resembles Donizetti's Mad Scene from his Lucia di Lammermoor of 1835, predating Macbeth by some 12 years.

Ekaterina Semenchuk as Lady Macbeth
They are joined by an excellent cast including steadfast, muscular and superbly controlled bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo as Banquo (Roberto Tagliavini opened the season). Joshua Guerrero (who shared the role with Arturo Chacón Cruz ) is robust with a warm and ringing tenor as a brave Macduff and tenor Josh Wheeker shows  fruitful authority as Malcolm.

On the directorial side, not all Tresnjak's tricks pay off but the production enthrals and delves deep with psychological subtlety. Rat-tailed rodent-like body-suited witches squirm and crawl in dance, more and more brazenly stepping into seemingly haunt and overrun the Macbeth name. Oversized heads of kings cajole Macbeth under which slender-legged dancers prance and bob about. That pushes the foreboding prophesy to its limit but when the rat-like witches dance and cavort atop the cradles of seemingly charred devil-like babies whose eyes begin to glow, it draws laughs, possibly because it exceeds one's patience to understand the point of it.

Darkness is ever-lurking in Tresnjak and co-scenic designer Colin McGurk's hard-edged, steely setting featuring a three-part recessed linear edifice erected on a stepped platform with a concealed upper bridge. It's mausoleum-like weightiness becomes a perfect adjunct to the plot.

Where use of stage depth lacks, Tresnjak makes up for it with vertical interest as the rat-like witches climb the walls with the upper bridge put to good use, amongst which a chorus of dishevelled witches sing out their gnarly song. Even including both rodent-like and robed witches, Suttirat Anne Larlarb's period costumes adhere to an overall picture of masculine rule with Lady Macbeth standing out in distinguished satins.

Scene from LA Opera Macbeth
Matthew Richards's brooding lighting is cued exceptionally with the drama, creating much diversity in this one-set static construction over four acts and Sean Nieuwenhuis's projections of pagan symbols assist in demarcating the supernatural world of witches and seers.

Conducting, James Conlon revealed a thrilling tug o' war tension in the music but never did he strangle his singers. You can see and feel the undivided attention he gives to his cast as if always a micro-moment ahead, enabling him to calibrate the intensity he shapes from his musicians. The strings, in particular, vibrated with heat and intricacy and thunderous orchestral passages belted threateningly.

Finally, not laying enormous praise on the LA Opera Chorus would be unforgivable. Credit must be given to chorus director Grant Gershon for preparing the best sounding chorus I've heard here. Full of lusciously modulated harmony and vocal vigour, aided by drama that places the action on the forward stage, sound projection was faultless.

With this dark and simmering musically splendid Macbeth, LA Opera's season-opening has branded itself deeply on the record and signals an exciting year ahead.

Los Angeles Opera
Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, LA Music Centre
Until 16th October.

Production photos: Karen Almond

Friday, September 30, 2016

Four Saints in Three Acts blessed with a heavenly theatrical Australian premiere at Victorian Opera.

Raphael Wong and Ensemble
By God, that Four Saints in Three Acts is good. Nonsense hasn't quite ever left me so entranced and uplifted, even more so than my memories of church itself. Whatever could "He asked for a distant magpie" mean? Directed by Nancy Black with co-director Dr Kim Vincs, Victorian Opera have indeed blessed composer Virgil Thomson and librettist Gertrude Stein's surrealistic delight with a heavenly theatrical 3-D experience for its overdue Australian premiere.

In the thick of the Parisian artistic milieu of the 1920s, American ex-pats Stein and Thomson's collaboration flouted with many traditional aspects of opera, no less than premiering it with an all-black cast in the USA in 1934. Stein's mashed up libretto defies any narrative sticking power, yet it binds with Thomson's frisky score with effervescent playfulness and lyrical ease.

It was all sung with gleaming strength by a cast of enthusiastic performers from the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE) alongside the young guns of Victorian Opera's professional development program and some more experienced hands.

With almost 50 performers constantly on stage, there's St Teresa and St Ignatius amongst a host of saints real and imagined, and Compère and Commère who preside from either side of the theatre balconies, appearing to both set the scene and direct it's course.

The music resounds with nourishing ecclesiastical simplicity together with folkish tunes at one with the American prairies and a sprinkle of Gilbert and Sullivan seasoning, which conductor Phoebe Briggs lets crisply bounce and ricochet marvellously. The 15-member Victorian Opera Chamber Orchestra glistened on opening night with a richness of sound spreading out far and wide, a sound deceivingly richer and greater than their number.

Hayley Edwards, Imara Waldhart, Sophia Wasley and Shakira Dugan
As the one-hour performance unfolds, one moment you latch onto a thought, the next it's gobbled up by another. Stein leaves you scratching your head for meaning, then gloriously gives us the power to have faith in her explorative journey. It seems so apt then that the subject of the work revolves around something resembling a convention of saints whose own faith, devoutness and industry made them handpicked for the job to keep the mystery of faith alive.

The work's expression through the creativity of theatrical staging is paramount in making it coerce, confront and alter perceptions like few works can and the team at Victorian Opera have once again flexed their inventive muscle to do so. For it, a mesmerising fairytale-like beauty explodes in Deakin Motion.Lab's digital scenography (directed by Dr Kim Vics), under Peter Darby's low-intensity lighting. Costume supervisor Candice MacAllister uses a palette of white and ivory, effectively highlighting the higher-status saints in hooped skirts, pantaloons and ruffs.

A rotating branch you can reach out and touch in a bright cloudy blue sky, a fanciful gothic cathedral that spins and threateningly thrusts its angularity, a rambling garden and brook from which fish leap, a hovering lamb, a gigantic snake, an infinite stairway to the heavens and a lion we see scouting what becomes an Armageddon-like landscape of a burnt stormy sunset, the graphics seem rich in Christian symbology. Then, in the end, they seem to coalesce into a freakish but harmonious paradise that allows all to have a deserved place in this chaos.

That director Nancy Black has imbued the entire performance with vitality, detail and expression from her cast is a credit to her vision. The shear power of the work is realised when you walk away from it with a sense that everything you witnessed was routinely understood by all its participants, and as if the strange English language they sang was never an impediment to their proceedings.

Darcy Carroll and Ensemble
With too many talents to number, singling out just a few seems sacrilege. Nonetheless, the night was enhanced by the intellectual and gentlemanly Compère, Jerzy Kozlowski, whose robust port wine bass caresses trustingly, and the scolding-toned, bookish Commère, Margaret Arnold. Sophia Wasley shone with a bright and incisive soprano as a divinely agile St Teresa 1 while her double, St Teresa 2, was portrayed with assuredness by moody-dark mezzo-soprano Shakira Dugan. Baritone Raphael Wong provided well-grounded reinforced strength as St Ignatius, Carlos E Bárcenas unleashed his now signature highly emotive and resonant tenor as St Chavez, Darcy Carroll's polished baritone accompanied his statuesque presence as St Plan, and Rhian Tuohy as St Settlement and Hayley Edwards as both St Celestine and St Anne sang with angelic prowess. Commendations to all other saints in the firmament.

Much artistic energy has been invested in this wildly scintillating production. It seems such a shame that it's over after just one preview and two performances. I pray that it'll be resurrected. Those 3-D glasses need to be used again.

Victorian Opera
Malthouse Theatre
Until 1st October

Production photographs: Charlie Kinross

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Lyric Opera of Melbourne succulently successful staging of Our Man in Havana: Herald Sun Review

An epic spectacular with marketability: San Francisco Opera's world premiere of Dream of the Red Chamber

In a string of commissioned works by San Francisco Opera, the latest is a very marketable one with the potential to reach a new audience of millions. The world premiere of American-Chinese composer Bright Sheng's Dream of the Red Chamber, based on the epic Chinese classic written in the 18th century by Cao Xuequin, is sure to have future seasons at any number of impressive new opera houses China can boast.

A scene from San Francisco Opera's Dream of the Red Chamber
When sung in Chinese (Mandarin), it should woo the masses in China, supposedly as familiar with the story as westerners are of Romeo and Juliet. For its San Francisco public, however, it's sung in English with English and Chinese supertitles. Being so, it brings accessibility, but I'd rather have preferred to experience it with its own characteristic diphthongs and song as part of the exotic cultural totality that Chinese director Stan Lai and designer Tim Yip so lavishly offer. It's not as if the opera world is short of accomplished Chinese speaking singers, a few who feature in the production itself, or inexperienced in dealing with a foreign language libretto.

Owing more to western classical tradition, Sheng's music is deliciously bridged with descriptive strands of Chinese music incorporating the qin that form part of a richly textured orchestrated continuum. Apart from obvious snippets of Puccini's popular Chinese-set Turandot ringing through that I wished I wasn't hearing, the soundscape contains a beauty that conductor George Manahan easily conveyed via precise playing from the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

David Henry Hwang's libretto is brushed with lines and lines of poetic metaphor and it's sung in broad, sometimes distracting, American-accented English by a cast of powerhouse, predominantly Asian singers to tell a story of love conquering desire and temptation but after which its bloom is ripped apart by clawing interests of wealth and status.

Pureum Jo and Yijie Shi
It's metaphysical framework is established by a narrator, an old monk (Randall Nakano) cautioning a stone and a flower that the Earthly love they desire will not turn out as they believe. The stone has supplied the dew to nurture the flower and, ignoring the monk, they metamorphose as Bao Yu (Yijie Shi) and Dai Yu (Pureum Jo), cousins belonging to two powerful dynastic families. They have the blessing of Granny Jia (Qiulin Zhang) in marriage but Bao Yu's mother, Lady Wang (Hyona Kim), fiercely opposes it. Lady Wang's fortunes depend on her daughter, Princess Jia (Karen Chia-ling Ho), one of the Emperor's concubines, and forging her relationship with the wealthy Aunt Xue (Yanyu Guo), whose daughter, the heiress Bao Chai (Irene Roberts), she wants Bao Yu to marry.

I caught myself momentarily more focused on the richly embroidered and flowing costumes in Act I, not helped by a little sterility in the direction of the larger populated scenes and lines of similes and metaphors that saturate the story. The act's concluding septet soars vocally without little visual tension in the fate at hand with the likely marriage of Bao Yu to Bao Chai.

The eleven scenes over two acts move from The Grand Hall to Dai Yu's chamber to the Pear Court Pavilion and so on, displaying the wealth of the two families with Academy Award-winning designer Tim Yip's detailed and vibrant designs unfolding like intricate picture book pop-ups under Gary Marder's evocative lighting shifts.

Act II's opening bamboo grove is where Stai's direction successfully transforms as the dramatic relief lifts intensely. Greater intimacy emerges between the characters and continues more satisfyingly through to the story's shattering finale of loss.

Structurally, the aged monk's interjecting narration does little to bind the plot that the scenes themselves don't do, though Randall Nakano imparts wisdom and kindness in the role. Warmth and firmness of voice, tenor Yijie Shi skips from youthful nonchalance to passionate young man as Bao Yu, pairing tenderly with soprano Pureum Jo's pure-hearted and lucent, agile-voiced Dai Yu. Together they exert a combined power and sensitivity to attain the believability of their journey.

Karen Chia-ling Ho, Qiulin Zhang and Hyona Kim
Qiulin Zhang's dark plummy richness of voice gives distinctiveness to her motherly Granny Jia. Hyona Kim has formidable presence as the disdainful-faced Lady Wang. Irene Roberts is an assured and graceful Bao Chai, Karen Chia-ling Ho is compelling as the introspective and troubled Princess Jia and Yanyu Guo breathes with authority as Aunt Xue. Supporting roles slot in comfortably and the San Francisco Opera Chorus lend well-shaped potency.

Dream of the Red Chamber does a remarkable job in condensing epic storytelling into three hours of opera. Visually, musically and vocally it pumps out much beauty but its poetic foundation could benefit with directional tweaking and the dream I have of seeing it performed in the language of its origin. It will be performed next March at the Hong Kong Arts Festival again in English before a Chinese libretto is likely to see the light of day in mainland China.

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 29th September

Production photographs: Cory Weaver

Thursday, September 15, 2016

An opening night of opulence to austerity with Andrea Chénier under McVicar's microscope at San Francisco Opera

When the curtain was raised for the opening performance of San Francisco Opera's new production of Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chénier, Act I's opulent palatial salon setting shimmering in crystal and gold must have overwhelmingly gratified the well-dressed and gowned patrons in attendance for the 94th season opening gala. The ornate War Memorial Opera House too looked splendid, decked out in festoons of red, white and blue, lending as much to patriotic fervour alongside a rousing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" as to the opera's 18th century French Revolution setting.

Yonghoon Lee as Andrea Chénier
Warm words of welcome came from incoming General Director, Michael Shivlock. And when the name of the company's Music Director and conductor was sorted out after another high profile company representative simply forgot who it was, Maestro Nicola Luisotti, unfazed, responded with music rich in poetry, texture and beauty crafted by comforting and precise playing by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

In this co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (in which Jonas Kaufmann performed the title role) and National Centre for the Performing Arts, Beijing, it took tenor Yonghoon Lee's arrival as Andrea Chénier, in his San Francisco Opera debut, to spark up the stage and rectify the poor projection from some preceding principals. Lee set himself apart almost immediately with his immense vocal engine.

As the steadfast poet Chénier, Lee showed beautiful gradation of the voice with phrasing that drew the listener in with every breath interval. When he reached fortissimo heights, Lee did so with thrilling intensity without ever overexerting. When the initially reluctant Chénier makes his poetic declamation shaming the aristocracy for the sufferings of the poor in "Un dì all' azzurro spazio" Lee delivered it with impact that sang out to our own modern day privileged sector of society.

And while the spectacle of Robert Jones's lavish sets and Jenny Tiramani's sumptuous period-perfect costumes dazzled under Adam Silverman's crisp, effective lighting (though sometimes coming across too sharply lit in Acts II and III), the narrative feels piecemeal as it seesaws between the political and personal without feeling dramatically complete. As the opulence gives say to austerity, I was, however, struck with a delayed appreciation in the way director David McVicar approached the work.

Anna Pirozzi as Maddalena di Coigny
We presume a convincing portrayal of love will unfold between Chénier and the aristocratic daughter of the Contessa di Coigny, Maddalena, who soprano Anna Pirozzi, also making her house and American debut, rendered with a rich and lustrous tone. Pirozzi shaped a light and clean top and pushed to high-geared power while maintaining purity of tone in Act II's duet with Lee. Then in Act 3's "La mamma morta", the voice streamed with emotive wealth, not at all showing any sign of sickness despite the pre-performance announcement.

Complications arise with the di Coigny estate servant-cum-revolutionary leader Carlo Gérard, who has long loved Maddalena and drives the tragedy forward in the ensuing upheaval. As Gérard, baritone George Gagnidze (principal number three in their San Francisco Opera debut), brought rich dimension and authority to his character, his deep oaky resonance and vocal fluidity increasingly making their mark along the way.

But Chénier's love seemed unreciprocated by Maddalena as expressed by the subtleties and chemistry at play and, though incredulous, perhaps McVicar's re-examination of Luigi Illica's libretto was saying something very different to expectation. With Chénier's choice not to flee Paris after losing the favour of the revolutionaries by denouncing Robespierre, Maddelena, broken and desperate, loses her safe haven after his subsequent conviction of death. You get the sense that Madalena is more willing to go to the guillotine to release herself from a life in semi-hiding that punishes her than from her loosely expressed love for a now doomed Chénier. If I'm wrong, it at least felt more gratifying to see it this way.

George Gagnidze as Carlo Gérard
The stage wasn't short on other memorable performances. Schemingly lurking and nimbly prancing about, Joel Sorensen brought great individuality to his role as the spy, L'Incredible. David Pershall's solid bass braced Chénier's robustness with authority as his friend Roucher.

J'Nai Bridges gave fulsome mezzo-soprano depth and sympathetic heart as Maddelena's maid Bersi, Robert Pomakov was a sturdy Mathieu and Catherine Cook's haughty Contessa di Coigny entertainingly tickled with acerbic tone of voice that matched her offside condescending expressions.

Accompanied with animated assuredness, the San Francisco Opera Chorus provided excellent vocal balance and it was hard not to tell that the San Francisco Opera Dance Corps, distinguished in style, weren't singing along too as the total effect bonded so seamlessly.

There's so much on offer on the musical, vocal and visual front to make up for Andrea Chénier's bumpy narrative journey. McVicar even gives it a little more worth to look at it further under the microscope.

San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 30th September

Production photos: Cory Weaver